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Dead in the water

Dead fish lie on a section of dry lakebed in drought-stricken Lake Mead on 9th May 2022. As water levels receded further over the summer human remains were revealed

Dead fish lie on a section of dry lakebed in drought-stricken Lake Mead on 9th May 2022. As water levels receded further over the summer human remains were revealed. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

On a sunny May morning at Hemenway Harbor on Lake Mead in Nevada, the dock staff were preparing for the afternoon voyage of the Desert Princess. The steam paddler, painted bright white with a yellow and black trimmed hull, bobbed in the water with the stars and stripes fluttering at her helm. Beneath the wooden dock, whiskered catfish swam in lazy circles hoping the soon-to-arrive tourists would throw them some bread crusts. The Desert Princess would follow the same route she had for the past 40 years. A leisurely cruise to the lake’s southernmost point and then a sharp turn to starboard between two towering cliff faces. On her upper and lower decks tourists would gather, cameras in hand, ready for the grand reveal: a lakeside view of the Hoover Dam. It was a normal day. That is until the dock staff were interrupted from their preparations by a bloodcurdling scream from the nearby beach.

“It was a terrible noise. A real holler. It sounded like someone had died, and, well they had, but not recently,” recalls Jamie*, a bartender in the Desert Princess’ saloon. Along with the other staff working that day she rushed over to see what was causing the commotion. By the time she arrived, a small crowd was peering into an old oil barrel sticking out of the sand. It was half rusted away and covered in clusters of quagga mussels, an invasive species of freshwater mollusc that clings on to anything that spends time at the bottom of the lake. “I looked inside it, and I thought: ‘Oh my!’ You could see it was a person stuffed in there, or what was left of them which wasn’t much, just teeth and bones, just a skeleton really and a few scraps of what I guess were once clothes,” Jamie tells me. “It was awful, like a Halloween decoration but real. What a terrible way to go, shoved into a barrel and tossed in a lake. I never saw anything like it and, well, I hope I never do again.” But the discovery on 1st May 2022, of the ‘Hemenway Harbor Doe’, as the barrel skeleton was dubbed by the local press, was just the first of the grim finds to be made at the lake that summer.

Less than a week later, on 7th May, sisters Lynette and Lindsey Melvin were out paddleboarding when they spotted a jawbone protruding from the water. At first, they thought it was the remnants of one of the leghorn sheep that scramble up and down the sheer rock faces around the lake’s edge. And then they spotted a glint of silver sparkling in its teeth, a filling that clearly marked the remains as human. The third grisly find came on 25th July and the fourth on 6th August – both have been described as ‘partial’ and their location indicates they could belong to the same person. Body number five was dredged up by police divers on 15th August. “You’d think people would be put off visiting, but they’re coming here looking for more – who knows, maybe you’ll find one!” Jamie tells me, half in jest. “People love a good murder mystery.”

By the time I arrive at Lake Mead National Park it’s mid-September, just a month after the fifth body was discovered, and it’s still blazingly hot. It’s been a long summer and locals are looking forward to the respite of autumn, which in this desert region means the temperature dipping below 100° F (38°C). As I approach the entrance to the park, a desert rat scuttles in front of the car. A roadside sign has its dial tilted to ‘extreme’, indicating the fire risk in the area today. The landscape is stunning: red mountainous rock dotted with almost luminous green creosote bushes and flat-leaved, fleshy-stemmed prickly pear cacti adorned with bright pink blooms, some of the only plants hardy enough to survive in this arid landscape. As I round the corner, Lake Mead itself comes into view.

The United States’ largest reservoir is formed by the Hoover Dam, fed by the 1,440-mile-long Colorado River it provides water to 40 million people in America’s southwestern states – Nevada, Arizona and California – as well as generating hydroelectric power for another 1.3 million homes and businesses. It’s an impressive oasis of still, bright blue amid a palette of desert tones and stretches as far as the eye can see. But looks can be deceptive. While to the naked eye it may still seem vast, years of drought and overuse have diminished its size substantially. In July 2022 the Nasa Space Observatory reported that, continuing a 22-year downward trend, the lake had reached its lowest level yet, declining to just 27 percent of its total capacity.

“I get asked two questions these days,” says Jon*, an affable ranger at the Lake Mead Visitor Information Center. “The first is: ‘where is the water?’ The second is: ‘where are the bodies?’ But I can only answer the first,” he says with a wink. Taking out a yellow highlighter he marks a black-and-white printout map with a squiggly line for me. It’s a centimetre or so in from the edge of the lake. “That’s where the water is now, give or take. It’s shrinking faster than we print new maps,” he tells me.

This is, right now, the most critical point in the Colorado River’s history”

As I approach the lake, the water’s rapid retreat is on display. A line of SUVs and pick-up trucks with boats hitched to the back queue to reach the Hemenway Harbor launch ramp. It’s the only one still open to boaters – the other five have closed, mostly likely permanently, due to low water levels. Alongside the queue, water markers show the lake’s backward march by year. The 2021 sign is now in the middle of the carpark, already some 20 metres or so from the shoreline. If you make the trek back to the 2000 sign, you’re around two to three miles from the water’s edge. As I leave the dock aboard the Desert Princess, the extent of Lake Mead’s decline becomes visible from another angle. Towering 48 metres above us is a chalky white line on the rock face. It dwarfs the steam paddler. Known as the ‘bathtub ring’, it marks the height the water once reached. It hasn’t been that high in decades.

“I can say that this is, right now, the most critical point in the Colorado River’s history. Our reservoirs are at record breaking low levels,” Colby Pellegrino, deputy general manager of resources for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, tells me. The decline, she explains, is a result of climate change-driven reductions in snowfall in the Colorado mountains – 70 percent of the river’s water comes from snowmelt – as well as wildly over-optimistic projections of the amount of water that could be delivered when the river’s supplies were first divvied up in the 1920s. This, combined with a rapid growth in population in America’s southwest – between 1910 and 2020 the population of Nevada, California and Arizona has grown from around 2.7 million to over 49.7 million according to census records – is causing the reservoir to slowly dry up. “In very simple terms, there’s more water going out than going in,” says Pellegrino.

In July, the Bureau of Reclamation recorded Lake Mead’s water at 317 metres above sea level, the lowest since it was first filled. The lake risks dipping  below ‘power pool’ levels – at which the dam no longer has enough water to produce hydroelectricity – by 2026. On that trajectory it could become a ‘dead pool’, with water too low to flow downstream, in a few more years. “It doesn’t have to be this way. Drought is like a freight train, it’s going to kill you if you stand in its way but it’s slow moving, you have time to get out [of] the way,” says Pellegrino. “But at the moment we’re still standing on the train tracks.”

Tourists ride the Desert Princess paddleboat on Lake Mead on the upstream side of the Hoover Dam. The white ‘bathtub ring’ on the rocks marks the height the water once reached

Tourists ride the Desert Princess paddleboat on Lake Mead on the upstream side of the Hoover Dam. The white ‘bathtub ring’ on the rocks marks the height the water once reached. Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Not far from the Desert Princess’s docking station is the wood panelled Harbor House Café. A flashing neon Coors Lite beer sign hangs alongside a boat wheel and a carving of two mermaids, and a painted wooden pirate greets guests at the entrance. “This place hasn’t changed much at all,” says 51-year-old Denny Endricks. But its location has. In 2008, the café and Lake Mead Marina were moved wholesale by tugboat from Boulder City Harbor two miles south due to low water levels. Denny and his wife, Deann, are visiting from their home in California to collect his father’s boat, ‘Witchy Woman’, named after the Eagles song, to do maintenance work. Endricks has been visiting Lake Mead since he was a child. “It’s sad to see how it is now. I have so many great memories here. The beaches used to be great, but now they’re just kind of a gross, slimy mud pit where the water’s gone back quick. Look at this water tower,” he says, pulling out his phone to show a photo of a beached metal structure. “I took my wife to see it today – when I was a kid it was mostly underwater, we used to climb up the top part and jump into the lake, you can’t do that now because it’s about half a mile inland,” he says, taking a swig from his beer.

As the water has edged back it has revealed a host of hidden relics. Tourists can now visit the sun-bleached ruins of St Thomas, a Mormon ‘ghost town’ abandoned by residents ahead of its planned flooding by the Hoover Dam in 1931. Across the lake sunken vessels are also emerging from their once-watery resting places, including a Second World War-era ‘Higgins’ boat that once lay 56 metres below the surface. And, of course, there are the bodies. “That’s some crazy shit!” says Endricks, a self-proclaimed mob aficionado. “I bet those mob guys thought they’d hidden them well when they dumped them in the lake, they could have never imagined the lake would dry up like this.”

Of the five sets of remains discovered this summer at Lake Mead police have released information about only two. One has been identified as 42-year-old Thomas Erndt who was declared missing, presumed dead after he jumped off the back of a boat and never resurfaced two decades ago. Since the lake was opened in the 1930s around 300 people are believed to have drowned at Lake Mead either in accidents or by suicide. The other is the Hemenway Harbor Doe, whose death is being investigated as a homicide. According to the Las Vegas Police Department, the as-yet-unidentified male victim was killed by a single shot to the head, most likely in the 1970s or 1980s based on analysis of his clothing and footwear. While scant, the details released by the police have captured the imagination of amateur sleuths determined to try their hand at cracking the case.

You have a few beers with your mates, see what you can find”

Among them is The Problem Solver podcast host, David Kohlmeier, a former Nevada police officer, who has offered divers willing to brave the depths of Lake Mead a $5,000 reward for the discovery of more remains. Meanwhile, on land, local ‘treasure hunter’ groups, undeterred by laws that prohibit the removal of items from national parks, have organised via Reddit threads to comb the lake’s beaches for clues. So far no one has found the figurative ‘smoking gun’, but Mitch Jacobs and his friends, who were out with their metal detectors, told me that they had found a bunch of sunglasses, several empty beer cans, and an old mobile phone. “We saw that people were going out searching at the lake, so we thought we’d give it a try,” says Jacobs. “Normally we fish, but this is something different to do at the weekend. You know, have a few beers with your mates, see what you can find. So far, we just found junk – no bodies! But you never know what you might turn up, I heard a guy found an old gun somewhere over there, so we might get lucky,” he says with a chuckle, waving his hand in the direction of another nearby beach.

An aerial view of Hemenway Harbor, the only one of six harbours on Lake Mead still open to boats due to low water levels

An aerial view of Hemenway Harbor, the only one of six harbours on Lake Mead still open to boats due to low water levels. Photo: Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Meanwhile online, in the true crime blogosphere, theories abound as to the identity of the mystery barrel man. Most, unsurprisingly, centre on the murky past of nearby Las Vegas. ‘Sin City’ is located just 30 miles from Lake Mead and in the 1970s and 1980s organised criminals ran nearly every casino on the strip. Among the lead possibilities for the real identity of the Hemenway Harbor Doe is George ‘Jay’ Vandermark. A slot machine supervisor at the infamous Chicago ‘Outfit’ (mafia group)-controlled Stardust casino on the Las Vegas Strip, Vandermark was the inspiration for the character John Nance in the 1998 movie Casino. He vanished without a trace in 1976 after his mob bosses discovered he was double-crossing them. Vandermark, who also had oversight of the casino’s counting rooms, was purportedly caught stealing money from the ‘skim’ – a scheme that allowed the mob to pocket millions of dollars in cash that passed through casinos without declaring it to the tax authorities.

Another potential candidate for the Hemenway Harbor Doe’s identity is drugs runner Billy ‘Bahama’ Crespo. When he was busted flying into Las Vegas from Miami with $400,000 worth of cocaine stuffed into a suitcase, Crespo agreed to turn police informant to avoid serious jail time. His grand jury testimony led to the indictment of ten of his co-conspirators in a drug trafficking and money laundering scheme, including Chicago mob associate Victor Greger. But the case never made it to court. In June 1983 Crespo disappeared, never to be heard of again. Without their star witness the prosecution’s case collapsed.

The Hemenway Harbor Doe certainly has “all the hallmarks of a mob hit,” says Geoff Schumacher, vice president of the Mob Museum in Las Vegas, when we sit to chat in a hidden backroom in the museum’s basement speakeasy bar. “When you look at that period, the 1970s and 80s in Las Vegas, the mob was still very prominent. But it was also a time of great turmoil for them because the FBI, local police and state gaming regulators were all on their trail and they were developing informants,” he explains. “Pressure was really mounting. And all this was leading up to some major prosecutions that would’ve put the majority of the mobsters in Las Vegas away. What do you do if you’re a mobster in that situation? You’ve got to eliminate these problems, right? So during this timeframe we saw a number of people go missing who had mob connections in the city.”

 Cars line an entrance of the Stardust Resort and Casino, 1979

Cars line an entrance of the Stardust Resort and Casino, 1979. Photo: Steche/Ullstein bild via Getty Images

Schumacher has his own pet theory about the man in the barrel. “You can’t overlook the connection between Pappas and the lake,” he tells me. Johnny Pappas, born Yiannis Panagiotakos, was a Greek American with “a Chicago street-corner ebullience, grin like Zorba the Greek, and positively crushing handshake” according to a story written by investigative journalist John L Smith who, as a child, knew Pappas as a family friend. The jovial Pappas had close ties to the mob. He worked for the Argent Corporation, a company that controlled numerous resorts and casinos in Las Vegas in the 1970s including the Hacienda, the Stardust and the Fremont, and which was used by the Chicago Outfit to run its skimming operations. One of its less well-known holdings was the Echo Bay Resort, managed by Pappas.

Among his duties at the lakeside hotel, explains Schumacher, was to “take high rollers and other VIP guests out on boat trips on Lake Mead. You know, a nice little perk for being a good customer.” Pappas knew the lake well and owned his own boat. In fact, it was probably used to lure him to his death. On the night of 8th August 1976, Pappas told his wife Cheryl, a Vegas showgirl, that he planned to meet two men interested in buying the boat on Las Vegas Boulevard. Three days later his car was found in the parking lot of the Circus Circus casino with the keys still in the ignition, but Pappas was never seen or heard from again. As Smith concluded in a piece he wrote for local newspaper, the Nevada Independent, musing on the barrel man’s identity: “I can’t stop thinking of the ghost of Johnny Pappas.”

A formerly submerged boat in a now-dry section of Lake Mead

A formerly submerged boat in a now-dry section of Lake Mead. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Whether the body is Pappas, Crespo, Vandermark or another unfortunate soul, the modus operandi of the killing, including disposing of the victim in a barrel, fits the mob, says Schumacher. Moreover, to keep “the pressure off Las Vegas”, mob hitmen would often dispose of bodies outside the city limits – too many bodies showing up is, after all, bad for business. In Las Vegas, the go-to location for mobsters looking to dispose of the dead was usually the uninhabited dry scrublands that surround the city. But, says Schumacher, there’s no reason that Lake Mead wouldn’t have been used too. “The focus around town has always been the desert. But bodies are constantly dumped into rivers and lakes and oceans around the country, around the world. Why wouldn’t it happen here? Las Vegas, yes, it’s a desert city that’s obvious, but you can’t talk about Vegas without talking about water. The city exists because of water. You know what the name Las Vegas means? It means: The Meadows.”

Las Vegas’s history is one of contradictions. The city is among the driest places in America’s driest state. Annually, Nevada has 25 centimetres of rainfall each year while Las Vegas has just 10.8 centimetres, making it the third driest metropolis in the US. Yet, as Schumacher points out, it was water that first drew people to this area. Artesian wells, in which groundwater flows from the earth due to natural pressures, proved a lifesaving resting point for travellers attempting to cross the Mojave Desert. In 1892, Spanish Mexican explorers, likely guided by Ute or Paiute Indians, gave the area the name by which we know it today – Vega, after its fertile lowlands.

The first known settlement of the area wasn’t until the early 1840s when Bill Williams, a Baptist minister of questionable character, used the wells to sustain his band of roving horse thieves. But while, by a desert’s standards, water may have been in abundant supply, food was not so readily available. Williams was believed to have fed passing travellers ‘the long pig’, a euphemism for roasted human flesh. One of his acquaintances is said to have darkly commented: ‘In starving times, don’t walk ahead of Bill.’ In 1862, during the American Civil War, the discovery of gold at El Dorado Canyon drew miners and prospectors to the region. But it wasn’t until 1905 that Las Vegas was officially founded as a full-blown city, thanks to the opening of a railway station on the Salt Lake City to Los Angeles line that served as a ‘water stop’ for locomotives and thirsty travellers.

Despite this, the city’s future was by no means guaranteed. Life in the west was precarious and many of the settlements established in this period simply disappeared once the gold was mined. Indeed, that fate nearly befell Las Vegas. In 1919 the mines ran dry and, to make matters worse, three years later in 1922, Union Pacific removed its repair centre – a major source of local employment – out of town in retribution for Las Vegas railroad workers joining that year’s Great Railroad Strike.

High-scalers removed rocks from the canyon walls with dynamite while suspended 200m above the ground”

Water, however, would again come to the rescue. In 1928 Herbert Hoover, America’s 31st president, announced the creation of a dam on a stretch of the Colorado River not far from Las Vegas. It was this fortuitous announcement, by the leader of one of America’s most puritanical governments, that likely both saved Las Vegas from returning to the dust from which it had emerged and, in an ironic twist of fate, set it on the path to become the country’s city of sin.

Although they didn’t know it at the time of Hoover’s announcement, Americans were about to be plunged into a decade of extreme hardship. The following year, the 1929 Wall Street Crash triggered the Great Depression, an era that would see unemployment rise to 25 percent and unleash mass migration across the country as hungry families searched for work. By 1933 one in three Americans lived in poverty. Construction jobs at the dam were gruelling, dangerous and, by today’s standards, badly paid. Wages ranged from 50 cents ($8.68 at today’s prices) to $1.25 ($21.70) per hour. ‘High-scalers’ who removed loose rocks from the canyon walls with dynamite and hammers while suspended 200 metres above the ground earned a mere 70 cents ($12.15) per hour. Nonetheless, in the Depression era, such jobs were highly sought after and drew tens of thousands of people to the area.

While the dam’s construction came at a fortuitous moment, both for Las Vegas and those desperately seeking work, the timing was pure chance. Plans to build it had been in the works for over a decade. Some engineers of the day doubted the design could be realised. Towering some 221 metres high and spanning 339 metres in length, it was created by pouring concrete to make interlocking individual blocks. If the concrete used, enough to build a two-lane highway from San Francisco to New York, had been delivered traditionally, in a single continuous pour, it would have taken 125 years to cure and the heat pressure would have likely caused it to collapse in on itself. In order to accelerate the curing process, engineers incorporated steel pipes within the blocks, through which water was pumped, cooled by way of 1,000 tons of daily on-site ice production at a refrigeration factory.

Before work on the megastructure could even begin, however, an agreement had to be reached between the seven states – Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming – which drew water from the Colorado River and its subsidiaries. Each favoured a different approach to divvying it up. Arizona argued that the water drawn from the river’s many tributaries on its territory shouldn’t count; Colorado, the rainiest state, reasoned that allotment should be based on precipitation; meanwhile California, the oldest of the heavy users, favoured the ‘first in time, first in right’ principle that originated in the early gold rush and meant that those with the earliest claims took precedence.

An aerial view of the construction of what was then known as the Boulder Dam, 1935. It was renamed after Herbert Hoover in 1947, shortly before its completion

An aerial view of the construction of what was then known as the Boulder Dam, 1935. It was renamed after Herbert Hoover in 1947, shortly before its completion. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The result, after several years of heated negotiations, was the 1922 Colorado River Compact. It was signed by six states (Arizona refused to join until 1944) and divided the water between two basins, upper and lower, serving three and four states respectively. It was not comprehensive – several other treaties were later negotiated to address thorny omitted details – and inaccurate predictions about the river’s ‘virgin flow’ would catch up with states further down the road (scientists later realised that the projections on which states were allocated their water had been premised on data gathered in the wettest year in a century). But at the time it was a groundbreaking deal that paved the way for engineers to begin work on planning the dam in earnest.

The Nevadan authorities soon realised that sin could be commercialised for profit”

In 1931, ground was finally broken. The influx of workers initially set up makeshift desert camps. Conditions were brutal. Not wanting to lose their workforce to heat exhaustion and the diseases that were quickly spreading through the settlement, federal authorities stepped in to provide better accommodation. Las Vegas’s proximity, just 35 miles away, made it an obvious first choice. But during a visit to scout locations, interior minister Ray Lyman Wilbur caught one of his employees drinking in one of the city’s many speakeasies. It was the era of Prohibition and Hoover’s government had recently enacted the Increased Penalties Act, making minor liquor violations including the sale and transport of alcohol punishable by a fine of up to $10,000 ($195,000 in today’s money) or a five-year prison sentence. Outraged by the employee’s transgression, Wilbur jettisoned the plan to accommodate the dam workers in Vegas. Instead, he announced plans for a purpose-built city with government rangers at the gate to guard against the vices of alcohol, gambling and prostitution. “Instead of a boisterous frontier town,” Wilbur said in a speech announcing the creation of the Boulder Canyon Project Federal Reservation, “it is hoped that here simple homes, gardens with fruit and flowers, schools and playgrounds will make this a wholesome American community”.

Outside the gated workers’ town, however, it was a different story. In Las Vegas, Prohibition and the construction of the Hoover Dam had created the perfect storm. Bootleggers took advantage of Nevada’s lackadaisical approach to enforcing dry laws – in 1923 the state was among the first to repeal prohibition laws, leaving it to federal agents to enforce them. In 1931 William Walker, the federal prohibition administrator charged with overseeing the booze ban, complained that Nevada was the country’s “wettest state” and that police would routinely warn smugglers about raids. Meanwhile the dam’s largely male workforce, seeking respite from gruelling hours of hard labour, provided a steady stream of customers. In a ‘Nuggets of Boulder Color’ column for local newspaper the Boulder Journal Review, journalist Elton Garrett noted that, contrary to Wilbur’s hopes for wholesome living, at Boulder City’s entrance : “The far side of the gate was lined with broken glass”, the handiwork of men who, on their way back from a night out on the town, had downed then tossed aside bootleg booze bottles before reaching the guarded gate where they knew they would have been confiscated.

Las Vegas, once a haven for horse thieves, then a Mormon settlement and, later, a railroad town, had once again undergone a metamorphosis, this time into a libertarian playground. The Nevadan authorities soon realised that sin could be commercialised for profit and were quick to capitalise. In 1931, legislators relaxed tax laws, loosened restrictions on ‘quickie’ divorces for non-residents and, radically for the era, legalised gambling – for the next 47 years Nevada would be the only state in the US to have legal casinos (the next would be New Jersey in 1978).

Gamblers play roulette in the Meadows, Las Vegas, 1931

Gamblers play roulette in the Meadows, Las Vegas, 1931. Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images

The same year the first casino and resort that was ‘carpeted’ – as opposed to sawdust floor joints frequented by the dam workers – opened to much fanfare. Named The Meadows, in a hat-tip to the springs that brought the first settlers to the region nearly a hundred years before, it had a swimming pool, a nightclub with a cabaret and a small landing strip for planes. The project was dreamed up during a two-year jail stint by Italian-American immigrant Tony Conero Stralla, also known as ‘The Admiral’ or ‘Tony the Hat’, a prolific Prohibition rum runner who smuggled booze from Canada under cover of a shrimp fishing business.

The city was literally growing out of the desert around us”

It was the first sign of a new age. As Las Vegas’s reputation grew, a new clientele began arriving in town: America’s prosperous thrill-seeking upper-middle class, who even amid the crippling Depression had money to blow. During the day tourists could pay $7 to visit the cramped tunnels in which the dam workers toiled and marvel at the staggering feat of engineering that their labour was realising. Among their number were Hollywood starlets including horror film icon Boris Karloff, star of the 1931 movie Frankenstein and Oscar-winning actress Bette Davis. At night, holidaymakers could gather round roulette tables and imagine that they too were living life on the edge at America’s frontier. And, in some ways, they were. This version of the Wild West, however, wasn’t run by cowboys, but by criminals and a new set had arrived in town. Just a couple of years after it was opened, The Meadows was burned to the ground by Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano, boss of a New York crime family, after Stralla refused to pay him extortion money.

By the mid-1940s the mob had not just moved into town, but had taken over entirely. More than two dozen crime families from across the country, operating from Milwaukee to Miami, agreed that Las Vegas would be an “open city”, meaning that traditional rivalries would be put to the side to facilitate profits. Business was booming in Las Vegas, enough for everyone to have a slice of the action and the more money mobsters made, the more they spent.

Charlie Shaffer was just 18 when he arrived in Las Vegas for the first time in 1958. A pianist by trade, he’d joined a rock n’ roll band in San Antonio. They headed to Reno, where they had a job lined up. It fell through, but the group were offered a gig playing at the Hacienda Casino and Resort in Las Vegas. “You know, I was young, I wasn’t even legal to gamble yet! I’d never even really heard of this place. But when I got there, well, I’d never seen anything like it, it was just out of this world, you really felt like this was a place where things were happening,” he tells me. The mob were making lots of cash and spending it fast. Shaffer was drafted in 1962 to the US army. When he returned two years later, the city had exploded in size. “When I first arrived in Las Vegas, the Strip wasn’t even the Strip, it was the highway to Los Angeles. There was a hotel then a lot of empty land and then desert. By the time I got back from the service, in 1964, all the empty land had been filled in. It was just wall-to-wall hotels and casinos,” he says. I meet Shaffer in a small cafe in Boulder City, where he lives in retirement. It’s a small town where everyone knows everyone and it’s proud of its conservative past – there are no casinos here, it’s the only city in Nevada that prohibits gambling. “I prefer a quiet life in my old age,” he says with a smile that makes his eyes twinkle. But back in the 1960s it was a different story. From midnight to six in the morning he’d perform to Las Vegas’s late night party-goers. “There was a Hollywood crowd that came [to Las Vegas]. Some nights, when I was playing at the Sands, I’d look up and see [Frank] Sinatra standing at the back of the room. There were just buildings going up constantly. The city was literally growing out of the desert around us,” he tells me. Among them were some of the most notorious casinos of Las Vegas legends: The Flamingo, The Stardust, The Tropicana and Circus Circus. Schaffer performed at most of them. Many were mob owned in practice, if not on paper.

But for all the glamour there was a dark side to the place too. “Las Vegas is a city in statistics only. In every other respect, it is a jungle – a jungle of green-felt crap tables, roulette layouts and slot machines,” wrote journalists Ed Reid and Ovid Demaris in the opening lines of their groundbreaking 1962 book on Las Vegas’s dark underbelly, The Green Felt Jungle. “It is a live-and-let-live society. That is, you let the hoods live the way they want to live and maybe they’ll let you live. There is no question about it. The city belongs to the mob. They have about $250 million invested in Vegas alone… Nobody is about to take it away from them.”

 The fledgling Strip in the 1940s. By the middle of the decade nearly every casino was run by the mafia after organised crime groups agreed Las Vegas would be an “open city”

The fledgling Strip in the 1940s. By the middle of the decade nearly every casino was run by the mafia after organised crime groups agreed Las Vegas would be an “open city”. Photo: American Stock/ClassicStock/Getty Images

“You’ve got to understand, where there’s money, there’s going to be violence and in Las Vegas there was a lot of money to be had,” ex-mobster Frank Calabrese Jr tells me. Calabrese is now a guide who takes holidaymakers nostalgic for the mob’s glory days in Las Vegas on mafia-themed tours round the city, but back in the 1970s and 1980s he was in the thick of the action. Having tried and mostly failed to get murder charges to stick to mobsters – witnesses frequently disappeared or preferred to serve jail time rather than testify – law enforcement changed tack. As the adage goes there are only two things in life you can’t avoid: death and taxes. “That was the mob’s mistake. They didn’t want to play ball with Uncle Sam, they didn’t want to pay up and Uncle Sam came after them for it,” Calabrese tells me in his thick Chicago accent.

The 1970 racketeering and organised crime act (RICO) was a game-changer. It specifically targeted financial crimes committed by an ‘enterprise’ – in other words mob crimes such as the ‘skim’ – and provided for sentences of up to 20 years for each count of racketeering. While it may not have been as glamorous as getting a murder conviction, the RICO act put dozens of big name mobsters behind bars. One of the most high-profile court cases was the so-called ‘Mafia Commission Trial’ which saw the heads of three out of five of the New York ‘crime families’ sentenced to a combined total of 100 years in prison. At the same time, Calabrese explains, traditional income streams for the mob were disappearing. Much of the lucrative “juice loan” market, for example – loans made to gamblers at extortionate rates as a way to launder cash – was lost to credit cards. “So, there’s fighting over money, and not only do you have to worry about if you were gonna get killed by another gangster, but you also had to worry about someone cooperating and the government coming down on you,” says Calabrese.

Calabrese had his own day in court in a RICO case, but he was in the witness stand, not the dock. He was born into “the life”. His father, Frank Calabrese Senior, also known as ‘Frankie Breeze’, was a ‘made man’ – a fully initiated mafioso – and a central figure in the Chicago Outfit. He was also an extremely violent man. “My dad said to me at some point, if they [other mobsters] want us, they’ll get us. ‘Frankie,’ he said, ‘here’s a list of guys that I want you to go get revenge on. If they kill me then kill them all, kill them good’.” One on occasion his father even tried to kill him. Finally, during an eight-month stint in jail with his father, Calabrese realised his dad would never let him leave the mob. “By this point I had two young kids myself. I wanted to be a family man. I didn’t want to die or spend the rest of my life in jail. That’s the decision I had to make.” So he opted to turn state witness, using a wire to record his father confessing to multiple murders.

Calabrese Jr was among the few who were lucky to make it out of the mob alive and free, having declined a witness protection programme. During the 1980s in Las Vegas there were “a lot of murders, a lot of people that just disappeared,” he tells me. But Calabrese doesn’t buy into the theory that the Hemenway Harbor Doe is George ‘Jay’ Vandermark, the slot machine supervisor at the Stardust casino. During what became known as the ‘Family Secrets Trial’ his uncle, Nick Calabrese, who also turned state witness after learning that Frank Sr had ordered a hit job on him, testified to a grand jury that Vandermark had been killed by the mob in Arizona where he was hiding in a luxury hotel. “They would have had to bring Jay all the way back to Las Vegas just to throw him in a lake and that’s just not feasible,” says Calabrese.

People that kill for a living seldom get caught because they’re good at what they do”

But Pappas is a possibility, he says. “Not that I have personal knowledge about this body that’s been found, but people that kill for a living seldom get caught because they’re good at what they do, they plan it out. And, as I understand, this guy was lured out to his boat by some people that wanted to buy it. So, in that situation you let them take you out for a ride and the easiest way to get rid of them is in the lake,” he tells me. In the late 1970s and early 1980s Lake Mead reached its highest levels – it even flooded in 1982. “Back then this lake was deep, it’s out in the desert, so anything can happen out there, if you know what I mean.”

If you walk the Las Vegas Strip today, you’d have no idea that America’s southwest faces a crippling water shortage. Resort swimming pools vie to outdo one another. Mandalay Bay invites visitors to “sun, swim, splash and soak” at its 44,500 square metre “aquatic playground” complete with a wave pool, lazy river and sandy ‘beach’, while the Golden Nugget offers tourists the opportunity to take a water slide through a 758,000-litre shark-tank. Meanwhile from 7pm to midnight crowds gather outside the Bellagio to watch its famous fountains erupt in a grand display every 15 minutes. Shooting up from 1,214 nozzles, the water reaches 140 metres into the air in a carefully choreographed show set to songs including The Beatles’ ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ and Elvis Presley’s ‘Viva Las Vegas’. Inside the resort complex, visitors can watch Cirque du Soleil’s costumed acrobats perform their show The O in an eight-metre-deep tank containing 5,678 cubic metres of water. At Caesars Palace, meanwhile, tourists can pose for photos in front of a tinkling Trevi Fountain replica, complete with a statue of the Roman god Oceanus astride a chariot pulled by two seahorses.

Yet while this aquatic excess might create the impression of abundant water it is, Colby Pellegrino explains, another sleight of hand by a desert city that has reinvented itself repeatedly to survive. “Las Vegas is a very adaptable city, and when it comes to water usage, we’ve had a lot of success in water conservation,” she says. The Nevadan authorities have cracked down on grass, banning all use in non-residential construction since 2003, including thirsty golf courses, and massively limiting its planting in new-build residential properties.

Sin City’s swimming pools and fountains are also, surprisingly, largely sin-free. Most of the resorts either have infrastructure to treat and recycle their own water or pump it to the nearby Clark County Water Reclamation facility which chemically cleans it and returns it to Lake Mead. The combined measures have enabled Las Vegans to slash its per capita use by 48 percent in the last 20 years, a decline which means an overall saving of 98 million litres during a period in which the city’s population grew by 750,000. When it comes to water conservation, however, there is “no one size fits all, you can’t just transplant what we’ve done in Las Vegas to Phoenix, Tucson, San Diego, Santa Barbara, for example, it won’t work,” Pellegrino tells me. This is because Nevada’s strategy of returning large amounts of water only works because its geographical position – close to and elevated above Lake Mead, means that treated wastewater can be returned on a downstream flow. “For us things like low-flow shower heads don’t make sense because that water is being reused, returned to the lake anyway. But if you live, for example, in coastal California that kind of measure can make a big difference because logistically it’s too complicated, too far, to return that water to the lake, so that wastewater from showers and so on is being discharged to the ocean.”

 The Bellagio Water Fountain Show on Las Vegas Strip sees water shoot 140 metres into the air, propelled by 1,214 nozzles

The Bellagio Water Fountain Show on Las Vegas Strip sees water shoot 140 metres into the air, propelled by 1,214 nozzles. Photo: George Rose/Getty Images

For its part, the Southern Nevada Water Authority is hedging its bets. As well as reducing usage, it’s also improved access to the lake’s resources by building a three-mile pipeline, completed in 2020 and known as the ‘third straw’, which can draw water at an elevation of 266 metres, slightly below the ‘dead pool level’ of 273 metres and significantly lower than Nevada’s ‘second’ pipe elevation of 305 metres. Currently, the lake’s water-level stands at a perilous 318 metres. In essence the project, which came in at a cost of $1.5 billion, will enable Nevada to drain the very last drop of accessible water from the lake.

However Pellegrino is at pains to point out that, there can be no single winner in a water war. Las Vegas is not an island; it is part of the larger economy of the southwest. Ultimately, she explains, states will have to acknowledge that the overly optimistic 1922 allocations of water aren’t sustainable, particularly in an era of climate change. “We need each other, everyone needs to agree to make drastic cuts – you’re talking about 15 to 30 percent across the board,” she says. Quite how that will happen, however, remains unclear. While Nevada has taken a proactive stance in reducing its use, other states such as California, which is allotted 4.4 million acre-feet of water – the lion’s share of the lower basin’s overall allocation – has so far refused to introduce mandatory restrictions. In particular, the state fears damaging its sizable farming industry producing water-hungry alfalfa, a grass crop used to feed cattle. Pellegrino cautions against pointing the finger at any one group. “There can’t be just a single player, a single state, a single crop or a single industry making all the changes. I don’t think a blame game will produce good results,” she says. But at the same time the previous “carrot and stick” approach of negotiating with states to reduce their water dependence won’t work anymore either because “there’s simply not a lot left to give in terms of carrots.”

I guess mobsters in the 1980s didn’t know much about climate change”

What happens if states can’t reach an agreement about how to reduce water use is, however, uncharted territory. “I would expect federal intervention before the water runs out altogether, they have the broad power to step in if a deal can’t be reached,” she says. “In other situations, in other parts of the country, agreements about water have always been reached voluntarily. So, there’s no roadmap for what happens if they don’t. I just can’t say how that looks because it’s not happened before. But it’s a situation that is increasingly possible – we’re certainly heading down that path.” And time is running out: “Right now we have just a few years – not to agree these changes, but to implement them… there is no plan B for what to do if the water runs out,” says Pellegrino with a sigh. “We’ve just had the driest year in the driest century, but it could well also be the wettest year of the next century if these trends continue.”

Meanwhile, as the water levels of Lake Mead continue to dwindle, mob-watchers are looking on with macabre fascination. The Hemenway Harbor Doe remains unidentified, although the police have said they are working on extracting DNA from the skeletal remains that they hope could provide answers. Schumacher says that if the body is officially certified as a mob-connected killing, the museum hopes to add the barrel to its exhibits. He’s also expecting more bodies to emerge from the lake depths as the water recedes.

“This body was underwater for 40 years and it would’ve stayed there if it hadn’t been for this megadrought. I guess mobsters in the 1980s didn’t know much about climate change, but I can imagine there are a few [mob] guys out there who are keeping a very close eye on it now,” he says with a chuckle. “If I was a betting man, I’d say there are more secrets buried at the bottom of that lake.”

*Names changed at interviewees’ request

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